Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sept. 19)

Adam and Annie were driving into the city for a formal reception and dinner. Adam was receiving an award from his company for extraordinary work. They pulled onto the highway and proceeded toward the city. About 10 minutes later, they noticed a car on the shoulder of the road. The driver of that car was standing by the trunk. As they approached, they realized he had a flat tire.

“Let’s stop,” Adam said. Annie replied, “We’re running late and we’re all dressed up. What can we do?” Adam pulled over, got out of the car. “Can we give you a hand?” he asked. “Thank you very much, I cannot change it alone,” the driver replied. “I forgot my phone and ….” As he said this, he lifted his arm and showed them his hand. Three of the fingers looked like they were locked, bent in toward the palm. “Been like this since I was a youth.”

“We’re glad to be able to help,” Adam said, and then he changed the tire. When they got into the car, Annie said, “Sorry I hesitated when we pulled over. I’m glad we helped him, he would have been stuck here if we didn’t do something. It was the right thing to do.”

The Gospel passage for this Sunday’s liturgy recalls one of Jesus’ instructions to the crowd on leadership and service. He tells them, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”

Service is one of the attributes of Christian discipleship. Jesus repeatedly teaches, by word and deed, that life in the Kingdom of God entails caring for those in need. The passage today gives us some things to consider as we ponder our lives of service.

First, Jesus offers this teaching in the context of his second passion prediction. Last Sunday’s Gospel passage recalled the first and concluded with this instruction to the disciples: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake, and that of the gospel, will save it.” Now following the second prediction, the disciples are arguing among themselves as to who is the greatest. Self-interest and ambition are pushing out the cross and moving the focus away from God and his kingdom.

Second, Jesus asks his disciples not to see honors but opportunities to serve all. Service is an act of love. Jesus gives his life in the service of all – in love. When the disciples’ service is done “in his name” then it becomes associated with the cross of Christ. The benefits of this service now go beyond this world to something unseen and eternal.

Third, Jesus illustrates his teaching by placing a child in their midst and saying: “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.”

In the society of first-century Palestine, “a child would symbolize not so much innocence or un-spoiledness as lack of social status and legal rights. A child was a ‘non-person’ totally dependent on others for nurture and protection, and of course one could not expect to gain anything either socially or materially from kindness to a child,” write Donahue and Harrington in “The Gospel of Mark,” pg. 285.

Jesus accepts, loves and serves those who not only are in need but who can give nothing back in return. He calls the disciples to do the same. Jesus associates himself and the Father with the person in need, so much so that when his disciples “receive” that person “in his name” the service is rendered not only to the person but to God.

Recently with the destruction that came with Hurricane Ida we saw so many people helping others. We regularly see Christian service in action when parents care for their children, or children care for their parents. We see people giving to food drives, working in homeless shelters, supporting charities through giving, helping a neighbor with shopping, visiting the sick, or helping the outcast feel welcome. There are likewise so many opportunities every day to be of service.

Christian service is life-giving in so many ways for so many people, for giver and receiver, for the community and for humanity itself. So Jesus continues to encourage us: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.